Marine Debris Curriculum Materials

The discovery of accumulations of human-generated trash in the ocean (e.g., “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“) has generated questions about the sources and effects of marine debris. Where is ocean debris (especially plastics) coming from? What happens to the debris once it reaches the water? How do plastics affect marine ecosystems and sea life?

The study of marine debris integrates topics in physics, biology, and chemistry. CAMEOS fellows have developed an environmental science curriculum that explores the sources and effects of marine debris through guided inquiry activities and research projects. Debris enters the ocean with terrestrial runoff, as well as by direct dumping of trash into the sea, making the debris that students find on their campuses directly relevant to the debris found in the ocean. By studying marine debris on their campus, students learn about the scientific process and data collection techniques while discussing current conservation issues that are relevant to coastal communities.

CAMEOS fellows use an inland, to coast, to ocean approach to guide students through the study of marine debris. First, students collect data on debris found inland on school campuses, near creeks and streams, and at the coast using established scientific survey methods. They sort the debris they collect in the classroom and visualize it using Microsoft Excel. Fellows then present students with long-term California Coastal Conservancy data from the annual Coastal Cleanup Day to compare to the campus debris data. Lastly, with support from Oikonos, fellows bring albatross boluses collected at Kure and Midway Islands into the classrooms for dissection. Albatross often mistake trash for prey items, and when they go through the normal process of regurgitating indigestible prey parts (such as squid beaks) in pellets called “boluses,” they also regurgitate a lot of marine debris. Students get to see firsthand what these birds are ingesting when they forage in the open ocean.

Fellows have developed two versions of the Marine Debris curriculum. Both have guidelines and activities for campus debris collections that teach basic data collection and analysis techniques. “Environmental Science and Data Analysis” is a more general overview of the marine debris issue, combining oceanography, ecology, and toxicology. “Ecotoxicology and Data Analysis” is a more specialized curriculum that focuses on animal physiology and the toxicology of marine debris plastics ingested by ocean animals. This curriculum was published in the American Biology Teacher. You can find activities for both versions here, as well as additional internet and scientific literature resources:


  1. Environmental Science and Data Analysis

  2. Ecotoxicology and Data Analysis

  3. Additional Resources

Funding for CAMEOS is provided by the National Science Foundation's GK-12 Program